Tag Archives: Politics

On Moral Vision

I was recently informed that my moral standards have “lowered” since walking away from my faith. It’s true that some things that I once considered sins are no longer on my Thou Shalt Not list. Homosexual relationships would be in that category. Touching on what is apparently the most important moral issue in the evangelical church, I no longer equate early-stage abortions with murder. And of course, I score a big fat zero on the Greatest Commandment.

I granted my conversation partner’s premise and we moved on from there.

As Blackadder said to Prince George, “It is so often the way, sir: too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.’”

What I should have said was, “My moral standards have not lowered. They have sharpened.

“The Bible was the lens through which I used to see the moral world. It gave excellent vision of the basic moral truths: tell the truth, don’t steal, and so on. However, there were some dirty spots on that lens. Looking for truths about slavery, genocide, the treatment of womenhumane slaughter of animals, or even discrimination against the handicapped, one learns that the lens is not as clean as one would wish.

“Most people already have great moral vision for the basics, with or without the Bible. Our problem is that we suffer from various astygmatisms of prejudice. We don’t trust people who are not in our tribe — our race, our religion, our political party, our culture. We tend to over-trust people who are like us. We also over-trust ourselves: our cognitive biases systematically prevent us from seeing the truth.

“The most pernicious is confirmation bias, and faith-based morality sinks an arrow deep in that Achilles’ heel.

“I’ve traded the biblical lens for one that sees morality in terms of the well-being of sentient creatures. Although it may be harder to learn to use that lens than to read a book, it is cleaner than the book I had been using.

“I realize that my biases are hard to correct. That’s why I study them and blog about what I learn and learn and learn.

“My new lens is not perfect, but I think I see sharper now than I used to, and I hope my vision will continue to improve.”

That’s what I should have said. Now I’ve said it.

Plato’s Truth-Loving Test

Love them or hate them, standardized tests are part of growing up. To get into college, most students take the SAT. To gain admission to graduate school, you might take the GRE, LSAT, MCAT, or who know what else.

Inasmuch as higher education is usually required for leadership positions in our society, these tests are gate-keepers to leadership. They do a good job of measuring intelligence, but is intelligence what we want most in our leaders?

It seems to me that the problems in America today are not due to our leaders being stupid. On the contrary, I suggest that many politicians who take stupid positions are very smart. Take an issue like climate change. There’s a lot of money at stake and politicians know it. They also know exactly how informed or uninformed the public is, and just how flagrantly they (the politicians) can deny reality. They’re very smart about that. The problem is that they have insufficient love for truth.

And what about the polarization of public discourse that is so notorious right now? As any reader of PolitiFact.com or FactCheck.org knows, much of the dysfunction and hate is fueled by outright lies. Again: not enough love of the truth.

What I want is a leader who loves the truth — whose highest aim is to discover what it is, so that he may promote and serve it.

We have standardized tests that help smart people rise to the top. How can we identify people who love truth?

Plato solved that problem 2,400 years ago. As dramatized in Plato at the Googleplex (a book you’ll be hearing more from on this blog), Plato says,

What I proposed was having our children be told glorious tales to stir their imaginations, very much stressing all the time that these tales were true, and then seeing which among the children can resist them, can see the logical inconsistencies within these tales, and see all their inconsistencies with other truths that they have been told (Republic 413c-414a).

What an interesting idea! Do you think that would be a good test of truth-loving? It makes sense that people who will not be enticed by attractive, heroic lies would be leaders we can trust, doesn’t it?

Maybe the question is moot. Maybe Plato could engineer this test in his ideal city, but the suggestion is not practical today.

Or is it?

I suggest that Plato’s test is embedded everywhere in our society, but most of us don’t realize it. To know whether we have passed his test, all we must do is ask whether we have found the flaws in our most cherished beliefs — and all beliefs have flaws.

How many of us have esteemed as a true friend one who incisively criticizes our culture? How many of us Americans have seen how un-democratic it is to arrogate the maximum power for America in the assembly of nations? How many of us have seen the contradictions and cruelties in the scriptures we learned at our mother’s knee?

How many of us would vote for a politician who openly does any of these things?

Plato’s test is already in place. How many of us will care about the results — in our leaders or in ourselves?

 

Welcoming Hate Speech

Jonathan Rauch has a thought-provoking article in the latest issue of The Atlantic: The Case for Hate Speech. He says,

The critical factor in the elimination of error is not individuals’ commitment to the truth as they see it (if anything, most people are too confident they’re right); it is society’s commitment to the protection of criticism, however misguided, upsetting, or ungodly.

It takes a lot of courage to protect the speech of your misguided opponents. You must have confidence that your ideas will prevail in the end, and you must have the patience to wait.

In fact, Rauch not only protects but encourages the airing of his opponents’ views. As he says regarding an opponent of same-sex marriage:

Most fair-minded people who read his screeds will see that they are not proper arguments at all, but merely ill-tempered reflexes. When Card puts his stuff out there, he makes us look good by comparison. The more he talks, and the more we talk, the better we sound.

I think this is similar to the faith one must have in due process of law. Even though you know the suspect is guilty, you must follow due process if society is to work. Shortcuts and cheating have a corrosive effect that is far more serious than one unjust acquittal.

If I have faith in one thing these days, it is in the power of information. Even false information is true information about those who are spreading it.

Here is one of my favorite movie moments of all time. Where Sir Thomas More defends the idea of giving the devil the benefit of the law, think of giving crazy people full freedom to state their views.

Ruled for the Pleasure of Men

On Friday, I visited the wonderful Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, where I saw Dancers in Pink by Degas. The docent told us that these girls were poor, and were selected more for their looks than for their talent. They were not the main attraction, but would perform during the intermission at the opera.

As you can see, one of them wears an earring.

The earring signified that its wearer had a patron — someone who had promised to take care of her and her family for the rest of her life.

“For the rest of her life, or for the rest of his life?” one of my fellow tour-takers asked.

“Good point. For the rest of his life,” replied the docent, a sweet woman in her seventies.

“So was she like a mistress?”

“Yes, that’s right,” the docent finally disclosed.

All at once, I saw two things.

The first was that poverty brings with it many ills and humiliations beyond being poor. One can imagine a poor family with a beautiful daughter. It fell to her to sell her very person to support her family. You can write the script from there — her degradation; the devaluing of her own marriage, if she were fortunate enough to have one; her worries for her children; her feeling of being forever trapped.

Dancing girls looking for “patrons” no longer vie for the attention of wealthy men during the intermissions of operas. However, plenty of women resort to prostitution, or simply live with abusive, unstable boyfriends because they feel they have no better option.

I call on those who loudly care about morality (I’m looking at you, Religious Right) to work to structure society so as few women as possible face these impossible choices.

I readily agree that we cannot solve the problem by throwing government money at the symptoms. We have tried that by giving money to women who have out-of-wedlock births, and — surprise — the out-of-wedlock birthrate has gone up, not down.

What will work? I’m not sure, but I do know one thing: the people least likely to find the solution are the powerful, white males who have both promoted and benefited from the inequalities of power and wealth for all of Western history.

That brings me to the second thing. I felt another reason to rejoice in President Obama’s reelection victory. He won with a coalition of the relatively powerless: young people, African-Americans, Hispanics, homosexuals, secularists — and women. Romney’s base of older, white,  evangelical men are no longer enough to carry the day. They still have plenty of power, but they don’t have the monopoly they once had.

With Obama’s reelection, all segments of society are seated firmly at the table, so we are more likely to find solutions to some of our most vexing problems. No segment will write the rules for everyone else.

Powerful males wrote the rules of Degas’ society. The dancers were ruled for the pleasure of men.

I’m glad we have given ourselves a chance to get past that.

“Attacked for Standing on My Principles”

I will look back knowing I was attacked for standing on my principles, for coming into this public process with the idea that you ought to put forward something to offer the public so that they can make a clear choice.

Of all the drama in the just-concluded election, Richard Mourdock’s  concession speech was the most arresting to me.

You’ll recall that he had been given a good chance to become Indiana’s next senator  but the electorate turned against him when he opined that “…life is that gift from God. And, I think, even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”

Even cutting him some slack because his concession speech seemed to be off-the-cuff, I am still struck by the way he confused being attacked for standing on his principles, and being attacked for having objectionable principles.

The distinction is important. When subtle untruths like Mourdock’s are allowed to slip unchallenged into the public subconscious, they reinforce the false perception that one side stands on principles and the other side rejects the very idea of principles.

Most people, myself included, respect people like Richard Mourdock for being true to their principles, especially when it costs them an election. We can respect his consistency and passion, but vehemently disagree with his opinion.

As we do so, I hope the Richard Mourdocks of the world will remember that politics is not a contest between a moral group that stands for their principles and an amoral group that wishes the first group would shut up about right and wrong. It is an earnest debate between people who care deeply about what’s right, but disagree over what that is.

That is how we make progress: by respecting the other side enough to engage them as equals with opinions worth debating, and giving them credit for engaging us likewise. We give evidence and reason for our opinions, and invite the other side to do the same.

Over time, the ideas that promote human flourishing will win out. Those who promote evil ideas are rejected. There are ups and downs, of course, but it’s clear that the arc of history is toward better morality. (When was the last time you heard of a European head of state entertaining his people by burning live cats to cinders?)

Richard Mourdock was right about one thing: he offered the public “a clear choice.” There was a debate over the choice and he lost.

Maybe he lost the argument because he didn’t really make one. Next time, let him attempt to persuade his electorate that God exists; that God has a plan for each of our lives; that God is perfect so his plans must be perfect; and that his perfect plans can counterintuitively include something as admittedly horrible as a pregnancy from rape.

If he is unwilling to undertake that task, let him say, “This is what I believe but I can’t back it up with evidence or logic. If you agree, vote for me. If you don’t, I still respect you as a person of principle.”

Obama Is More Pro-Life Than Romney

This weekend, I’m going to do something I have never done before. I will travel to the neighboring “battleground state” of New Hampshire and knock on doors to get out the vote for President Obama.

My main reason is that I view him as more pro-life than Governor Romney.

To many people, being pro-life is synonymous with being against abortion. Those people are are fighting a battle that was lost years ago. If presidents Reagan and Bush could not overturn Roe vs. Wade during their 16 years in office, I’m ready to conclude that abortion will remain legal in the United States for the the next 8, regardless of who is President.

The real battle for life is the battle for accessible healthcare.

If people in my extended family had not had good preventive care, several of them would probably be dead by now. For example, thanks to regular check-ups, at least 2 cases of cancer  were caught in time to save lives. If those family members had had to wait until it was time to go to the emergency room, as many poor people do, they would have died. Being pro-life means saving those lives as well as saving the unborn.

Thanks to the Massachusetts system of universal insurance on which Obamacare is modeled (and from which Romney now distances himself), my immediate family was able to obtain much-needed help when I had no income — not because I was one of the 47% who would never take responsibility for their lives, but because I was an entrepreneur starting a business. Being pro-life means caring for people who have no income as well as those who are well-off.

In her early days, America was a land of small towns where people knew and cared for each other and where medical care was primitive and inexpensive. We have grown, and there are now large sections of our cities and rural areas where virtually everyone is poor. They simply don’t have the wherewithal to help each other, especially in light of the tremendous cost of modern medicine.

Thankfully, we have grown richer as well as larger. As a society, we can now afford to take care of each other on a larger scale. Private charities and churches can help, but a church will never be an intensive-care unit. To care for each other, we need everyone to pitch in. That’s one thing that modern government is uniquely equipped to organize, however imperfectly.

President Obama understands this. Now that Mr. Romney is no longer governor of Massachusetts, he seems to have forgotten it.

Those are the reasons I think President Obama is more pro-life than Governor Romney, and those are the reasons I will travel to New Hampshire this weekend.

I hope you will consider casting your vote to re-elect the President.

The One Life I Know I Have

August’s 31 Days of Wonder were an experiment to see how I would feel about refocusing this blog (and my life) on the beautiful and true, spending less time railing against the lies that drive me nuts. That’s hard for me because it’s often the willful manipulation of gullible citizenry that gets me riled up enough to spend an hour or two writing a post. However, as far as I know, I have only one life.  I want to enjoy it, and being peeved is not as much fun as looking at the Mandelbrot set or marveling at the ribosome.

So, for the most part I’m going to hold my tongue. I do plan to write one post about why I left evangelical Christianity, but that will be my last one about religion for a while. As for politics, it will be difficult to rely on others to expose all the lies that will be told between now and election day, but I’m going to try.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the focus on “the beautiful, the true and the wondrous.”